This month, we asked b:friend founder Mike Niles to tell us all about the work they do around Christmas time and the festive period to end social isolation in older people.
Can you imagine waking up on Christmas Day morning and then going to bed that evening without seeing or speaking to another person, a bit like Kevin in Home Alone? Doesn’t bear thinking about really, does it? (unless it meant you live in a house like Kevin, which would be pretty sweet).
The truth is, so many of our older neighbours across Doncaster are confronting this desperate likelihood head-on as we creep closer to the festive period. Particularly this year, as families avoid big parties due to the pandemic, an older generation will stay at home, alone, self-isolating and taking one for the team.
One such person is Mary. When she was just a young’un, she would accompany her siblings and her parents to spend Christmas Day with her three old aunties in Hatfield Woodhouse. They weren’t actual aunties, rather her mum’s cousins, and all three of them had remained unmarried all their lives. The kids called it ‘a house without men’ – and, for Mary, they hosted the most entertaining Christmas Day parties you could wish for.
It was a mysterious house. Old fashioned kitchen gadgets hung on the walls, stuffed birds and red squirrels stared down creepily from glass cages and one of the old ladies would play the organ as the kids ate hot mince pies and the adults supped elderberry wine. A bunch of holly filled with red berries swung from the grandfather clock, bright coloured streamers criss-crossed the ceiling and home-made Christmas cards stood on the mantle where an open fire heated the house.
One specific Christmas Day, 80 years ago, came just four days after two bombs dropped on Doncaster during WW2, near Bentley, killing 14 people. Eight-year old Mary spent a lot of time ducking in and out of air raid shelters but, when Christmas Day came around, it was time to forget all that and focus on pass-the-parcel, postman’s knock, singing Christmas carols and joyous dancing.
For the last three years, Mary, now 88 years old and still living in Hatfield Woodhouse, has attended a different sort of Christmas party. Our charity b:friend, along with the support of partner organisations, have hosted a festive knees-up on Christmas Day each year since 2017… and Mary has attended every one; all the stuffed turkey, tacky tinsel and unruly singing you could possibly wish for. And booze! There’s always a bit of booze. It tends to help with the singing.
Last year, 90 year old Sally sang a medley of Christmas classics; the year before children gave out hampers to all the guests; and a few years ago we even got on telly! Volunteers collect people from their homes, assist people to their seats, get stuck in helping in the kitchen – but, most importantly, they sit down and have a chat with the guests. That’s primarily what befriending is all about: a cuppa, a natter and some social connection. For many people living on their own (around 24,000 over 65s live alone in Doncaster), it may be the first conversation they’ll have had for days or even weeks.
The way it works is through community members standing up for their older neighbours. These are the people, as this year has showcased again, that you can always rely on when the things hit the fan. Similar to those playing politics over free school meals, whether we’re starving people of food or starving them of social contact, it’s community members that simply won’t stand for it.
I was chatting to a lady called Doreen one day and asked her what she had planned for Christmas that year. It was sometime in the middle of December and she just said, “well, it won’t be much different to every other day, really. I’ve got some nice ham in the fridge so I’ll probably have a sandwich, watch the Queen’s speech and then Mrs Brown’s Boys.” That’s not OK. It’s not OK anytime of the year but certainly not at Christmas. Can you imagine Mrs Brown’s Boys being the highlight of your Christmas Day?
Loneliness sucks. We’ve all had a taste of being stuck at home in 2020. But while most of us can entertain ourselves watching Netflix, losing Houseparty quizzes, scrolling Instagram or getting creative on TikTok, this is like a foreign language for many older people like Doreen. If you admit to being lonely, older people are often told: “OK, so you’re isolated – your solution lies in learning the internet otherwise we’re out of ideas” – which is similar to someone telling you “OK, you want to go on holiday to Greece – but unless you become fluent in Greek, you’re stuck with staycations, my friend.” I’m useless at learning new languages, and I’m not receiving that daunting ultimatum in my 80s or 90s.
When lockdown(s) end, even us digitally connected lot are desperate to go for a coffee with friends, visit the cinema or do any number of things that make us feel normal and human and connected. Our older neighbours are no different but many don’t have the option to relieve their solitude.
So, while this year’s Christmas Day is going to be a little different with no big party, no singing carols and no hugs, we will still make sure there is the same giant slice of community feels.
A big Christmas Bundle is to be delivered full of games, chocolates, treats and, as is custom, a bit of booze. We’ll host a group telephone sing-along during the day that people dial into and a short video meetup for those with the technology. Everyone is welcome – the more the merrier. From the comfort of your home, or by delivering to someone that has no one, we’ll try to make sure those on their own behind closed doors feel that they are part of something bigger.
Can you help out?
Or make it possible by donating here: